Good quality early childhood education and care for infants and toddlers has lasting benefits for children and their parents and whanau. 1 This time is a critical and fundamental period of development for children as it lays the foundations for lifelong learning. The communication and exploration strands of Te Whāriki, the Ministry of Education’s curriculum for early childhood, are crucial to these foundations. 2
The number of infants and toddlers participating in early childhood education (ECE) has considerably increased. In 2000, 49,322 children up to two years of age were enrolled in early childhood services. This had increased by 53 percent to 75,514 in 2013. 3, 4
This report presents ERO’s findings about how well 235 early childhood services reviewed during Terms 1 and 2, 2014 supported infants and toddlers to become competent and confident communicators and explorers. We were interested in finding out what was happening in early childhood services where infants and toddlers were well supported as communicators and explorers. We also wanted to know about the challenges or barriers for services that were not as successful in supporting infants’ and toddlers’ learning and development.
ERO used Te Whāriki's definition of infants as children aged from birth to 18 months, and toddlers as children aged from one to three years. Te Whāriki positions infants and toddlers as learners with individual preferences, needs and desires:
Infants, toddlers and young children have distinctive and different needs and characteristics. These will determine the focus of the curriculum as it applies for each learner.5
Early childhood services gave priority to establishing warm and nurturing relationships with infants and toddlers and had less emphasis on communication and exploration. Although ERO found variability in how well services supported infants and toddlers as communicators and explorers, structural issues did not appear to contribute to variability in the sample of services reviewed. Variability was found across services with different ratios, group sizes and percentages of qualified and registered teachers.
Just over half of the services in the sample (56 percent) had a responsive curriculum that supported infants and toddlers to become competent and confident communicators and explorers. 6 Teachers 7 in these services were attuned and responded to infants’ and toddlers’ verbal and non-verbal communication. The children were encouraged to try new things and to explore the experiences they were interested in more deeply.
In the most responsive of these services, children experienced a high quality curriculum and responsive interactions and relationships. Children’s interests and their parents’ aspirations informed the curriculum and daily routines. How well each service promoted positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers was most influenced by:
These factors meant infants and toddlers experienced a curriculum that fostered and extended their learning and development.
The services that were less responsive continued to give priority to wellbeing and belonging, but provided less opportunity for infants and toddlers to become confident communicators and explorers. Although teachers usually responded to infants’ verbal and non-verbal communication they did not build on these opportunities for rich extended conversations or oral language development. There were fewer opportunities for infants to explore and develop physical confidence. Teachers were less likely to use what they knew about individual infants’ and toddlers’ interests and developmental milestones to provide experiences that supported children’s abilities to actively explore and communicate in many ways.
Infants were often better supported than toddlers in these services. In the main, infants enjoyed warm and nurturing relationships with teachers. They experienced routines that reflected their home environment through reciprocal relationships between key teachers, 8 infants’ and their parents. In contrast, toddlers were less likely to experience a curriculum that linked the home and the service and extended their interests - the focus was more often on behaviour and routines. Toddlers in these services were also less likely to experience a supportive and well-planned transition from spaces for children up to two years old to spaces for children over two years.
When designing and implementing their curriculum for infants and toddlers, many early childhood services need to broaden their focus from the wellbeing and belonging strands of Te Whariki to also include the communication and exploration strands.
The communication and exploration strands offer teachers opportunities:
ERO identified that many of the services judged to have ‘limited responsiveness’ had the capability to make improvements to better focus on communication and exploration for their infants and toddlers.
Infancy and toddlerhood are critical periods for children’s learning and development. If supported well, children are more likely to experience success as lifelong learners.
ERO found that most services have a strong foundation on which to further improve the responsiveness of their curriculum for infants and toddlers.
ERO recommends that early childhood services: